Mark Alor Powell

All photographs ©Alor Mark Powell

Mark Powell. Born September 4th, 1968, Decatur, IL. Currently lives in Mexico City.

When I look at your Mexico work I get the feeling that I’m looking at a new frontier. What inspires you about photographing in Mexico City?

I assume you mean by “frontier” that Mexico City seems like a fresh place to photograph?  Yes, It is.  Vast and chaotic–really walkable, tough, authentic, tragic, funny, many layers of economic class, both extreme first and third world so there is always something to reach out at.

Though I would hope that my work is not dependent on place, in that I don’t necessary think that I am out to document a city–I like when you can’t tell it is a picture from Mexico City and it takes on its own gravity of unique story telling.

Ultimately, Mexico City then becomes just a big fish with so much source and potential for making interesting pictures. I think most places can do that really. When I go see my parents in Bay City, Michigan I feel the same hyper motivation to photograph as I do in Mexico City.

Your work appeared in Street Photography Now and you’re often associated with the genre, but I suspect like many people you might oppose the that sort of definition.  What role does the street ethos play in your work? Do tend to roam around the street without any sort of destination? Or do your subjects sort of present themselves to you during the flow of your daily life?

I don’t mind being connected to street stuff. I do work in the street a lot and there seems to be a wide definition of what street photography represents these days. Though instead of considering myself an independent observer, I think I am more, I guess, a provocative intruder. I rarely make appointments and most of my work is made from my own experiences out in the world, sometimes confrontational and involving and sometimes not.  I like to get access into places or unique situations and usually because of my direct involvement in these scenes, a new plane of action is created in front of me and I am hopefully able to react to make something from it.

Coincidentally, the way I met my wife was when I rang a wrong doorbell.

Wrong doorbells can literally lead to good pictures.

What’s typically the reaction from your subjects when they realize you’re making photographs?  What do you do to connect with them or make them comfortable with the situation?

People respond well when I take an interest in them, a little warm and genuine charm and clowning around works well, maybe little white lies if necessary and also politely bossy. I just try not to squelch myself and the moment with destructive thoughts and try to use the right kind of earnest approach. I usually get a good picture when I really want it and I feel secure and sure. People can feel that confidence as well. When you are timid and unsure, like a dog smelling fear, people will naturally avoid you.

I know Soth has mentioned in interviews that he has a sense for the characters he wants to photograph. It’s probably hard to explain, but do you know right away when you want to photograph someone? And what type of subjects do you often find yourself drawn to?

Who I am attracted to or drawn to has changed for me as I have grown as a photographer. It always is becomes a battle of my own self consciousness plus the tug of war of the the world is throwing at me and my own awareness. I try to stay capricious and shoot a lot because you can always make a decision with an edit later on.

The other day I saw a man in a plaza with very skinny legs and new balance running shoes with short shorts. I was way too over excited and he didn’t let me take his picture anyway, the pavement was wet from them hosing it down because of all the dust and he stood there under a great overcast sky. I am trying to get away or be more aware of those too direct character pictures; they are so seductive and easy though.

These things can throw you for loop because what does that leave in characterizations? I like people who are different and it is easy to be attracted to them, but lately I want to say more.   So it is that balance of getting unique portrayals but also stories in wonderful unexpected scenes. Those are the ones you really can’t over think they just happen and you feel fortunate. But persistent work eventually chases them out.

It almost sounds like in essence you’re revolting against your older work. Does that come about naturally just from shooting or is this something you’ve discussed with other photographers?  Do you have any sort of side projects where you experiment doing different types of photography?

Instead of revolt it more a matter of finding new motivations. Photography for me is pretty finicky medium. The hardest thing is gathering that wind to blow you across material and feel excited about it. It is up and down in inspiration. I am still a new dad, with kids that need a lot of attention, so lately I have been taking pictures of my family and more immediate stuff from my day to day.

I have been doing video work too, I just finished working on a feature documentary called “Bellas de Noche” shooting these famous washed up Mexican show girls. That was fun. And actually a nice practical escape so I could come back later to still work with a fresh perspective. That is where I am now and I hope I got some good pictures ahead of me.

When I feel down I always return to some pictures that inspired me to become a photographer in the first place. Like this one: I also want to go back to a smaller camera like I used for my VIP book and just chill and run with that for awhile.

Reading that response it makes me think about how integral memory is to photography.  Looking at certain photographs I’ve made in the past really quickly and vividly brings me back to those experiences. But I’m smart enough to know that it’s still an interpretation.  Do you think memory plays a big role in photography?

Well generally speaking memory is not a motivation for me when I’m photographing. There is something painful when pictures are for personal memory and I do the bare minimum. I often have a hard time looking at things from the past and get too nostalgic.

I do make some pictures of my kids and family like everyone, but often I want these pictures for just getting interesting pictures. They are just conveniently around and do pretty amazing things, maybe I kind of use them. I am sure they will sting a little with time though.

All photographers should have kids–they are so damn hard to photograph otherwise.

“Memory” pictures, if they are not mine, have an entire other meaning for me and are quite fun to look at. I have a big found family album collection and enjoy looking at these photographs from the past that are not connected to me and I get inspired by them. I just bought a great album in a flea market of a guy’s trip in the Middle East with his mother. It is from 1975.  He is riding camels, drinking Karkadys, seeing the pyramids, smoking Cleopatra’s, always in the shot for reference with the same grin, so his mom is the photographer most the time. I guess he is a bachelor that never married or a widow.  I start to have all these fantasies about their lives through the pictures.

Do you ever wonder how people might look at your photographs in 20 or 30 years?  On one hand, they’re certainly cohesive and work well in books, but I also think they’re the type of photographs people would find on Flickr and just get lost in for hours. You’ve already established yourself within the street photography community, so I’m sure there will be always be some sort context for your work.  But  sometimes when I look at your work it strikes me as the type that perhaps a mailman or FedEx guy would stick under his bed and never show anyone.

I remember you like those Fed Ex trucks and I appreciate your Federal Express delivery guy analogy.

Well, I can fantasize that anybody would care about what I produced 20 years from now, but realistically I try to focus on this day. I honestly think I am on a journey and I hope I still am on that journey 20 years from now.

But to answer your question a little more generally, I am sure eventually there will be an aura or vintage feel from what Flickr and other sites did in the beginning of digital.  I am also sure there should be a big curatorial pull by then and a varied harvest will be made of some of the interesting images from many archived venues.  I don’t know if they would necessary pull the more consciously authored pictures we see and celebrate today though.

I think we will see a lot of unexpected selections that can only be only recognized with a little time under a belt.  Also, photographs these days are pretty precarious and in jeopardy and who knows what will happen in 20 or 30 years and how stable digital archives are. That is why it is important to make some decisions now and collect and make some bold predictions about photography for reflection.

There is a whole lot of “low brow” photographic history going down the tubes in sites like for example  Sexy o No, or Hot or Not.  One can find amazing vernacular self portraits and all these very real portrayals that say a lot more than their original intention while also telling us about the texture of now and how people used photographs in these times. It is important to save this and maybe that is where a lot of unrecognized energy is in photography at the moment.

Those individual voices or strong authored pictures will still be recognized of course, but they really are going to have had to say something very extraordinary and be gauged like all great photographers–original voice, relentless passion.

Sweet dreams under beds.

NEXT – Blake Andrews

  • along

    Ahh, I see you’re already a fan. Cheers.

  • Littlestar Fish

    recently inspiring ,wow

  • Eliot Shepard

    Outstanding interview on both ends. Thanks.